Democrats have lost control of the US House of Representatives and are now staring down at least two years of gridlock — and even more animosity — in Congress.
Democrats’ path to holding their House majority became increasingly narrow in recent days. Though the party was surprisingly competitive in some races, and held some swing seats thought to be beyond their reach, the GOP ultimately outcompeted them, picking up seats in New York, turning in a dominant performance in Florida (aided by newly gerrymandered districts), and flipping seats in the West.
Republicans won’t have the large majority they hoped for ahead of Election Day, however. Democrats were projected to lose at least 10 seats in the House, according to the Cook Political Report. The wind appeared to be under the GOP’s wings in the final weeks of the campaign, as concerns about inflation dominated in the polls and their closing message on crime appeared to resonate. Republicans needed just five seats for control. With some races still uncalled, they’re not on track to get too many more than that.
It’s an unusual margin for the party of the incumbent president, which typically fares poorly in midterm elections, and especially so given President Joe Biden’s approval ratings, though slightly up from their previous low, are still underwater. But seemingly buoyed by their defense of abortion access, pro-democracy stance, and stylistic differences with the GOP, Democrats managed to run ahead of expectations.
The small Republican majority will mean the likelihood that major legislation is passed in the new Congress is slim, particularly because Democrats held the Senate — and Biden still has veto power, though he indicated on Twitter that he’s willing to work with Republicans if they come to the table to address “the need to lower costs, protect the right to choose, and preserve our democracy.”
But even with a small majority, Republicans will still have power over what comes up for votes, investigations, and oversight.
“They don’t hand the gavels out in small, medium, and large size. There’s one size gavel with the ability to subpoena and hold this government accountable,” current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is in line to be the new House speaker, said on Fox News Wednesday night. “I believe that this conference will rally together.”
McCarthy has also already indicated that he intends to refuse any increase to the debt ceiling absent cuts to programs that are priorities for Democrats, including clean energy investments and Social Security.
That could lead to a situation in which the US risks defaulting on its debt if the parties can’t come to an agreement, dealing a devastating blow to the economy. Democrats have discussed advancing legislation that would take the debt ceiling off the table, but it’s unclear whether there’s time to do so, with a little less than two months left in the current Congress.
The most significant consequence of Republican control in the House might be even more partisan ugliness than we’ve seen over the last two years. In August, before the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, McCarthy gave a preview of what’s to come: “I want you to watch Nancy Pelosi hand me that gavel. It will be hard not to hit her with it,” he said in audio posted to Twitter by a Main Street Nashville reporter.
Republicans are ready to take revenge
Republicans are coming into power ready to get back at Democrats for what they perceive as four years of overreach, including their two impeachments of former President Donald Trump (with 10 Republican votes on the second occasion) and their investigation of the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Biden and his family — including the business dealings of the president’s son, Hunter Biden — are Republicans’ top targets. They also want to probe the origins of Covid-19 and the US’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) is expected to lead a broad investigation of the Justice Department and the FBI following the August raid on Mar-a-Lago, which led to calls from Trump-aligned candidates to “defund the FBI.”
In July, some Republicans were also pushing for an investigation of the House select committee investigating January 6, suggesting it might involve subpoenaing members of that committee, including outgoing Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois once they are private citizens next year. They were also considering whether to investigate Pelosi’s role in Capitol security enforcement; intelligence and security failures; and the treatment of insurrectionists who have been jailed for their involvement, seemingly in a bid to rewrite the narrative of what happened that day.
Trump allies have also reportedly advocated for hearings and investigations into his groundless claims of fraud in the 2020 election.
A big question is whether Republicans will move to impeach Biden. Republicans have already filed nine impeachment resolutions against Biden and officials in his administration, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) alone accounting for five of them. But party leadership is hesitant to act on them too hastily. The GOP could also pursue the impeachment of members of Biden’s Cabinet, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Attorney General Merrick Garland, among others.
Still, all of that doesn’t have the White House too worried. Officials are reportedly hoping that Republican efforts will backfire and allow Biden to contrast himself against the party in the lead-up to 2024, should he choose to run.
Exactly how much House Republicans are able to accomplish will depend on their ability to remain relatively unified. Their caucus will have a lot of ideological diversity, and there are likely to be vocal members of the far right calling for even more aggressive action on impeachment and investigations, as well as more moderate members demanding the party avoid overreach. McCarthy already faced the first test of his ability to cater to various segments of his caucus in his bid for speakership, and it is unlikely to be his last.
Update, November 17, 10:22 am: This story was originally published on November 16 and has been updated to include comments from McCarthy and Biden reacting to Republicans capturing the House.